Day one of AIMEX 2019 in Sydney, Australia, was as varied as mining events come. Against an exhibition backdrop that organisers say included more than 500 suppliers, leaders in the industry took to the conference stage to debate some of the industry hottest topics.
The morning sessions started off with discussions on the relationship between the mining sector and local stakeholders, an area of dialogue that becomes more dynamic with every mining, extraction or water use permit issued in Australia.
Stephen Galilee, Chief Executive Officer of the New South Wales (NSW) Minerals Council, was the first speaker to confront the topic and was, rightly, keen to talk up some of the success stories that the state had seen in the recent past.
He said the NSW Minerals Council addressed local community’s priorities through its Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue project, which he believes is one of the world’s best engagement community practices.
A panel, chaired by Austmine CEO Christine Gibbs-Stewart, followed shortly after Galilee and expanded on this line of discussion, with Mark Jacobs, Executive General Manager – Environment & Community, Yancoal Australia, and Ngaire Baker, External Relations Manager of Mach Energy, providing specific examples of how their companies have developed a working relationship with not just the communities surrounding their mines, but also interested parties within the states in which they operate.
Jacobs said the digital age and transparency of reporting has brought miners a lot closer to the communities that surround them than, say, 20 years ago, but he admitted Yancoal Australia and his peers in Australia needed to do more to rebuild the trust that was lost in previous decades. He added that local media played a strong role in this quest.
Baker, meanwhile, recalled several anecdotes about how Mach Energy was building strong community relationships by effectively communicating how the mining company was going about its business of starting up the Mount Pleasant thermal coal mine in the Hunter Valley, explaining what effects this might have on local businesses, as well as inviting them to the operation to gain a better understanding of the mine.
Jacobs and Baker made compelling points, but Anna Littleboy, Programme Leader – Mine Lifecycles, Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Queensland, made it clear the success of a mine or project was contingent on not only winning over the local community.
“I’m not sure the image of the industry is made or broken at the community level,” she said.
The Adani Carmichael coal project, in the Bowen Basin of Queensland, is a case in point, where local stakeholders have made it clear they would like the thermal coal development to go ahead, but issues on a national and international level have made it increasingly difficult to proceed. This is despite the company recently receiving a significant permit to proceed with construction.
Before the panel discussion ended, the speakers talked about what impact technology may have on local communities, with Gibbs-Stewart questioning what mine site communities could look like in an autonomous future where people no longer operated the machines.
The panellists said these communities could potentially become technology hubs servicing such operations, but Jacobs remarked that local and state governments needed to ensure the infrastructure was in place to allow such a transition to take place.
The next few conference sessions picked up the automation ball and ran with it.
Craig Hurkett, Managing Director, Enterprise Improvement Solutions, explored the challenges and opportunities that came with delivering autonomous vehicle maintenance. His talk touched on just how expensive the current fleet of autonomous machines were to keep running at full tilt.
Robin Burgess-Limerick, Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, took a different angle in his presentation: ‘Human-systems integration for the safe introduction of automation to mines and quarries’.
He made it clear that automation would change the established safety systems in place at both open-pit and underground mines. He also touched on some accidents that had occurred both above and below ground when autonomous equipment came into contact with either personnel or manned vehicles, but then countered this with details of a past paper he had co-authored on operations at the Northparkes underground mine in New South Wales where the use of autonomous vehicles had seen significant safety improvements as well as a 23% productivity boost compared with previous manual mode.
Factoring this in, he said mining companies and equipment manufacturers needed to ensure that autonomous equipment was designed for the specific operation it was going into and that manual overrides were not used as a workaround to improve productivity – which in the underground US coal mine example he gave resulted in a fatality.
It was then the turn of Dr Joe Cronin, Co-Founder, Australian Droid + Robot, on stage. Cronin, who has helped design autonomous underground systems at both Northparkes and the Syama underground mine (Mali), was positive automation was coming to mining at a pace that would catch many industry participants off guard; meaning they needed to invest to facilitate this change now.
His talk, ‘Using Telepresence technologies for the safe deployment of wireless mesh networks and underground inspection robots in mines’, focused on the improved communications infrastructure in mines and ability for robots and drones to travel into increasingly difficult areas of a mine. This, he said, would see risky tasks currently carried out by people, in the future, taken on by these machines.
Personnel would no longer need to travel underground to carry out sampling in active stopes, with these robust and agile robots able to give them the information they needed through payloads that could carry out 3D scans, take high resolution photos, sense dangerous gases and interpret potential rock falls.
This would not only increase safety underground, it would also allow autonomous operations to run 24/7, according to Cronin, with these robots working unimpeded alongside autonomous equipment.
Reflecting on the proliferation of drones in the open-pit mining space, Cronin estimated that in five years’ time, every underground mine would be using robots or drones to inspect hazardous areas of their mines.